Politics & Policy

Biden ‘among’ We the People

Riding the rails with the vice president

I wonder how much it costs for Joe Biden to pretend that he’s an ordinary guy?

On Thursday, I took the Acela from New York to National Review’s 2015 Ideas Summit in Washington. (If you weren’t there, you really missed some very interesting conversation.) After doing the usual thing — enduring the septic horrors of Penn Station and vowing to travel in the future by private dirigible or not at all — I trucked on down to the end of the platform to the least populated end of a very busy train. I popped in and began looking for a seat, preferably not next to some member of the general public looking too general, but found about a third of the seats in the car cordoned off as “Reserved for Group.”

You don’t see famous-famous people on the Acela; you see politics-famous people, with the ushers cheerfully showing CNN anchors to their first-class seats. There are perks to be had for the high and mighty, if “perk” is what you want to call that dodgy quesadilla. But seats cordoned off for a group? On Amtrak, where the employees are so open in their hatred for the American people, corporately and individually, that you expect to be forced into an orange jumpsuit?

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Of course it was going to be the vice president. Amtrak doesn’t reserve blocks of seats for ordinary citizens — not you, sucker! — and Biden is famous for riding the rails like a handsy hobo. As vice presidents go, I much prefer Dick Cheney, but the people have spoken. I found a seat, opened Charles Murray’s new By the People: Rebuilding Liberty without Permission (I recommend it) and idly wondered when the Sage of Delaware, the man who makes John Nance Garner’s description of the vice presidency (“not worth a bucket of warm piss”) seem strangely optimistic, would join us. He didn’t, of course. Not for a bit.

Tense words were exchanged: The vice president was being kept waiting.

There was an unexplained change of plans: The Amtrak ushers told passengers hunting seats that they could sit in the special reserved section if they were getting off before Philadelphia, and then, without explanation, they pulled the “Reserved for Group” signs off the seats and declared them fair game. A dozen or more commuting hearts were cheered.

For a minute, anyway. Biden and his entourage did in fact show up in Philadelphia, and there was some confusion about whether the vice president’s people had requested the first car or the first-class car. (Those of you who receive Jack Fowler’s fund-raising letters can guess which I was in.) Tense words were exchanged: The vice president was being — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — kept waiting while the agents of a state-subsidized monopoly debated with agents of the state security apparatus precisely how to go about affording No. 2 a convenience afforded no ordinary citizen. There was some shooing, though I myself was not shooed, and in marched a sort of sad, commando-looking fellow with resplendent tattoos on his forearms, a phalanx of Secret Service agents in ill-fitting suits and pigtail-cord earpieces carrying approximately P90-sized luggage, flat and black and submachinegunish. Men with aviator sunglasses and dogs on leashes patrolled outside.

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A lumbering agent of vice-presidential security seated himself next to me and fiddled with his BlackBerry, because apparently they still make BlackBerrys and the Secret Service uses them, God help us all.

And then came Herr Gropenführer himself. Biden’s biography alleges that he is six feet tall, and maybe he is, but he scurried into the train in a thoroughly rodential fashion, looking tiny and terrified, like a very old man who has wandered out of a dementia ward.

#related#The entourage on the train wasn’t all of it, of course. At each station, the forward door of our train car was guarded on the platform by additional agents, whose job it was to prevent people from using the door the vice president used. Whatever additional unseen security was deployed beyond this I cannot guess. Drones circling overhead, I suppose, with agents in some underground black-site bunker intoning into headseats: “Creepy is on the move! Creepy is entering Sector 4!”

At Union Station, the sub-imperial entourage was met with yet more security, and the train’s passengers were prevented from exiting until the vice president had meandered to the end of the platform toward whatever it is he pretends to do all day.

One understands that security measures are necessary — there are more people who wish to do harm to the vice president of the United States than to Finland’s minister of education (who but a monster could wish harm to Krista Kiuru?). My neighborhood Starbucks apparently generates enough cash to justify a Brink’s pickup. We conservatives believe in nothing if not caution.

All of this is done so that Joe Biden can continue doing his ordinary-guy shtick. Ordinary people have to be inconvenienced so that he can pretend to be an ordinary guy.

But in Biden’s case, all of this is done for the sake of theater — so that Joe Biden can continue doing his ordinary-guy shtick. Ordinary people have to be inconvenienced so that Joe Biden can pretend to be an ordinary guy. The serfs have to be forcibly reminded of their serfdom — no, you cannot just get off a train in our nation’s capital, willy-nilly and whenever you like, and here’s a man with a gun to make sure! — so that the lords can show us that they’re just like us.

But of course they don’t live like us.

Biden often is praised for the environmental impact of his train habit. The emissions math is not entirely straightforward, but my guess is that all those buzzcuts who showed up at every single stop between Philadelphia and Washington to stand at a closed door and look menacing did not get there on unicycles: I’d bet they came in SUVs burning copious amounts of fossil fuel. Is this about saving the taxpayers a few dimes, then? The cumulative financial impact of all that would be very difficult to calculate, but we can safely assume that it’s rather more than a business-class ticket from 30th Street to Union Station. Not environmentalism, not thrift — just theater.

I went back and forth between Charles Murray’s book — a call for civil disobedience — and the vice-presidential entourage, gliding through Baltimore as though the city hadn’t just seen a race riot. My attention was drawn in both directions at once. The people who love American politics love it for the give-and-take, for the exchange of ideas, for the sport of it. The people who hate American politics hate it because of the lie at its heart: that this is still the self-governing republic created by Jefferson, Madison, et al., instead of a new, different kind of regime that is something new in the world but immediately familiar, something dishonest, something gaudy and contemptible.

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